How the Apple iPad Was Dreamed Up -- in 1988

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In the late 1980s, Apple Computer was better known for fantasizing about breakthrough products than making them. Most famously, CEO John Sculley envisioned a futuristic gizmo called the Knowledge Navigator–featuring a bowtied digital assistant–in his 1987 book Odyssey. It made for a mighty impressive futuristic video.

In September of the same year, Apple announced a competition it called “Project 2000.” Teams from a dozen universities were invited to submit papers about Knowledge Navigator-like concepts representing the PC of far-off 2000. An impressive panel of judges–Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak, personal-computing visionary Alan Kay, futurist Alvin Toffler, science fiction legend Ray Bradbury, and Encyclopaedia Britannica’s Diane Ravitch–judged the entries in early 1988.

A group from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign won, for a paper titled TABLET: The Personal Computer of the Year 2000. “We seek something which fits comfortably into people’s lives while dramatically changing them,” the entry explained. And then it went on to describe a machine that was as different from the typical portable computer of the era as you could imagine.

The device was about the size of a paper notebook, and it packed a high-resolution color touchscreen with a virtual keyboard, gigabytes of solid-state storage, cellular connectivity, GPS, and a built-in microphone and speaker. Sophisticated software based on UNIX let you tap icons on a desktop and use pop-down menus to use it for note-taking, connecting to online services, driving directions, e-mail (complete with junk-mail filtering), social networking, 3D games, and both network TV shows and wacky user-generated video. Accessories included a wireless keyboard for those who preferred to touch type, and if you lost your tablet, a clever service even let you use the GPS to track it down.

Pretty heady stuff–we’re talking about the second Reagan administration here–but Apple incorporated all these ideas into a slim tablet that went on to be a groundbreaking success.

Oh, okay, Apple didn’t release the tablet in 1988, or even 2000. It waited until 2010, when it unveiled something called the iPad. (You may have heard about it). And I have no reason to think that Apple’s gizmo draws any inspiration whatsoever from the University of Illinois’s concept; in fact, it’s entirely possible that nobody involved with its design, including Steve Jobs, is even aware of Project 2000. (The contest was held when he was off running NeXT–although he returned to Apple in time to have a hand in its real computers of the year 2000.)

But I’m still struck by how close the Project 2000 tablet came to predicting the one Apple would build more than twenty years later. Tech predictions are so tough to get right that even very smart people get them embarrassingly wrong. But the University of Illinois team pretty much nailed every major feature of the device Apple eventually created–right down to “Find My iPad.”

Which is not to say that the 1988 tablet was utterly iPadlike. Some notable ways it differed:

  • It could be controlled via your fingertips, but it also sported a stylus and handwriting recognition.
  • The gigabytes of storage were provided not in fixed form, as in the iPad, but in interchangable memory cards. They sound a lot like SD cards, but were about the size of credit cards and based on optical RAM technology.
  • While the paper does talk about online services hosted by powerful remote computers, it didn’t quite predict the rise of the Web. (It would have been neat if it had–and fitting, given that the graphical Web browser was invented at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign just a few years later.) Instead, the team expected that a lot of databases would be distributed on memory cards and that users would “trade them like baseball cards.”
  • There was a built-in camera–incredible, huh?–for videoconferencing.
  • The tablet connected wirelessly with peripherals not through something like Bluetooth or Wi-Fi but via an infrared connection.
  • It was thick. Really thick. (In the 1980s, the concept of superthin computing devices didn’t exist–Digital’s 1994 HiNote may have introduced it–and the winning Project 2000 team failed to predict it.)
  • Oh yeah–it could multitask apps and run them in windows. (That appears to be Father Guido Sarducci in one of the tiny video windows.)

Those are all minor nits to pick–and in fact, the iPad could include some of these features today if Apple decreed so, and might be a better machine if it did. Absolutely nothing that the paper predicts was wildly unrealistic or worthy of mockery.

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